The Oral History Of Jewish Nevada
Four years ago, UNLV embarked on a project to document the Jewish history of Southern Nevada.
This has resulted in about 150 recorded interviews with Jewish Nevadans with a story to tell. After four years, the Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project is about to be completed.
Barbara Tabach was the project manager. She said the idea was started by the former head of UNLV Libraries.
"They decided we should do an oral history project because that is such a wonderful way to capture the history in a vivid way," she said.
Tabach said from some of the early casino owners who were Jewish to Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun the history of the Jewish community in Las Vegas is very rich.
"It was a great place for Jewish businessmen in the 30s and 40s to come and legitimize their craft and actually make our city the vibrant city that it's become," she said.
She did most of the interviews, including those with Roberta "Bobbie" Kane, whose family owned two liquor stores downtown and were among the original group of people who started what became Temple Beth Sholom. The first Jewish congregation in Southern Nevada.
Bobbie Kane: We were open 24-hours. We took the receipts out after every shift of course and put them in a safe. But they had to go into the night drop at the bank. So, if my folks were out-of-town, I would go in at two o’clock in the morning and pick up the deposits and walk around the corner. The bank was right on the corner of First & Fremont. Then, I would drop them in the night-box. I had a key, I think. I dropped them in the night-box and came back and went to school.
Barbara Tabach: How old were you when you were doing this?
Bobbie: Oh, probably 15 or 16. Whenever it was that you could drive, I was driving.
Barbara: Was there worry about crime?
Bobbie: I don’t think so.
Barbara: Liquor store robberies? Things like that.
Bobbie: Not really. My father and mother had a beer bar at Mike’s Liquor store. And it just became a family affair. Husbands and wives would come in together every night, sometimes, and sit and chat. And then you’d get the occasional telephone call from a woman who would say, “Is my husband there?” And they would look at the man - and in so many words - “Are you here?” And they’d say, “Well, he WAS in. I’m not sure where he is right now.”
Barbara: That’s a classic scene.
Bobbie: Classic. Oh, they were so good. But it was a family business.
Bobbie Kane was also the first Jewish child born in Southern Nevada. Tabach said it was actually easy to document that because the Jewish community at the time was relatively small and the only synagogue in town documented her birth.
92-year old Fred Greenfield, better known as comedian Shecky Greene;
Barbara Tabach: I’m going to start the recorder right now. I start out by asking you to say your name so that we type it correctly.
Shecky Greene: My name is Shecky Greene. My birth name is Fred Sheldon Greenfield. Fred Sheldon was named after an aunt by the name of Frieda Zelda. In the Jewish religion, Jews are named after the people who died. I didn’t want the name of Fred Zelda Frieda Zelda. I wanted the name “Al.” And my uncle had that name. So, I killed him to get that name. But they wouldn’t give it to me.
Barbara Tabach: So, talk about coming here. So many of the casino owners and operators were Jewish.
Shecky Greene: (long pause) Yes. Let me tell you. In a lot of towns like Omaha they had – it was like a little Las Vegas. They had gambling places hidden. Miami had gambling places hidden. Chicago had places like that. But then everything came to Las Vegas. And those owners, those guys – some of those guys worked for the mob. They were sent in here. A lot of our Jewish boys were connected. I don’t want to give names, you know. But, they were connected. And they were put in by these people. And then the first person who really started to break it open for the public was Howard Hughes when he started buying the hotels. He bought the Desert Inn. He bought Beldon Katleman’s property. That’s when it started to change. I make up songs on the stage about – (sings) “My town was small and now the buildings are tall. It’s to me is not the same. What they’ve done to Las Vegas is a dirty shame. I don’t mind what they did but listen to this my friends. What they did to this town certainly comes to the end. They charge for parking now. The want fifteen dollars.” When I get on the stage, I just make that up.
Barbara Tabach: (Barbara laughs) That’s great.
Tabach said when people talk to her they start to let down their guard.
"That's the beauty of the job," she said, "I love my work. You start talking to someone and if you're genuinely listening to them, they love telling their stories."
She said when you show someone you are truly listening they trust that you'll take care of those stories.
Holocaust survivor Henry Kronberg, who is now 97 years old. Kronberg was born in Germany and lived as a child in a Polish town. As a teenager, he was sent to the Krakow ghetto. Henry was subject to forced manual labor. He eventually emigrated to the United States.
Henry Kronberg: When I came to the United States, I never want to tell. I mean people knew about it. I was not comfortable telling the stories. I was not comfortable. And even when my daughter was born – when she was old enough to ask me about it - I never wanted to talk about it because it was painful and used to bring a lot of memories, which I didn't want at all. But when “Schindler's List” came out, the movie “Schindler's List,” and I realized that somebody has to tell the stories. It was at that time when I opened up, actually, and I start share my experience.
Kronberg’s parents died during the war. He had lost contact with his sister and didn’t know where she was or even if she was alive.
However, in an amazing twist of fate, when he and his wife were living in New Jersey, they received invitations to two bar mitzvahs one in New Jersey and one in Canada. They decided to go to Canada because they had never been.
While sitting at a table at the bar mitzvah, people started talking about where they were from and family they had lost or were missing.
Suddenly, someone at the table told Kronberg that they believed they knew his sister, who was married to a well-known musician, and the person believed she was living in Las Vegas.
Kronberg found his sister, came to visit Las Vegas, loved it here, and moved here to be closer to her.
In Las Vegas, Kronberg went into the pawn shop business. First, it was Pioneer Loan and then Stoney’s Pawn Shop in downtown.
Tabach says documenting history in this way is vital to the community and to fighting bigotry and racism.
"If we don't know other people's stories, it is hard to understand where they come from," "One of the great things I learned about Las Vegas history through the Jewish History project was the lack of anti-semitism."
UNLV Oral History Research Center's next project is Latinx Voices of Southern Nevada.
If you want to recommend a person for the Oral History center to interview:
Oral History Research Center -- 702-895-2222
Barbara Tabach, oral historian and project coordinator, Oral History Research Center, UNLV Libraries